You’re setting your calorie deficit all wrong.
This could be leading to:
- Unnecessary muscle loss
- Provoked binges
- Very slow fat loss
And probably many other things but regardless, your calorie deficit, depending how you set it up, could be inappropriate. Often I find people either use a % deficit or they select an arbitrary amount to drop by, say 500. Whilst both do and can work fine, I find there to be a much better way to really individualise your Calorie deficit.
Or maybe someone starts out a diet expecting to lose 2lbs a week, because that’s the going figure right? Well that in itself again lacks any context of the given person, their situation, physiology and could lead to some quite harmful or unwanted results. So today I am going to tell you why your calorie deficit is wrong and how to truly individualise it.
Table of Contents
The king of fat loss
Now before I get into how and why you might want to change your approach to your calorie deficit, lets establish something important:
You will lose fat if you eat in a caloric deficit.
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The calorie deficit is the king of fat loss.
There have been no studies published to date that have got round the first law of thermodynamics. If you eat fewer calories than your body needs to sustain its weight, you will lose weight. It really is that simple, and thus anyone who is reading this let me say “well done” because you’re already well on your way to fat loss.
However, as I said above, there are various ways of implementing a deficit and then there is the best way, the way we do it at Revive Stronger of course.
Using a % deficit
Lots of people seek to take away a given % from their daily intake.
This can totally work, because all things being equal they are eating below maintenance, which means they’re in a calorie deficit.
However here is an example of if we were to use a % it could quite easily be inappropriate:
- Joe: 170lbs, male, lean, student, in a relationship
- Paul: 170lbs, male, lean, self-employed & single
In both cases it appears they can handle a very similar size deficit, lets just say it’s 15% that we deem appropriate. Now because Paul is self-employed he’s very sedentary, he works from home at a desk, to maintain his weight he only needs to eat 2200 Calories. Whereas Joe is out and about all the time as a student, he cycles to uni and does some football alongside lifting weights, and so maintains on 3700 calories.
These big differences in Calorie expenditure between two similar individuals are not as rare as you might think.
- Joe’s intake with 15% deficit = 3145kcal (555kcal decrease)
- Paul’s intake with 15% deficit = 1870kcal (330kcal decrease)
As you can see Joe’s Calorie deficit is actually higher than Paul’s, which could be absolutely fine but it has lead to a recommendation that maybe isn’t as personalised as it could be. Maybe Paul can handle a larger deficit, or possibly the 555kcal deficit created for Joe is too much. We have individualised it so far as taking them as a person into account, but we can take this a step further. Taking into account the maximal rate they could lose each week whilst maintaining muscle mass, and then from there deciding on the deficit.
In short using a given % of calories to take away from your intake isn’t highly individualised.
Using a ” ” calorie deficit
Another popular way to do things is to just take an arbitrary number of calories away from our daily intake.
“I’m just gonna chop 500kcal a day”
This of course will create a deficit, as by definition if you take calories away from maintenance, you’re in a deficit (all things being equal of course). So whilst this can work it’s not very individualised, you could improve it by saying larger/fatter people can deal with a bigger drop and the opposite being true for smaller/leaner people, but this still isn’t the best option IMO.
For example, what if said larger/fatter person was very sedentary, leading them to maintain on a very small Calorie intake? Well they might chop 750 calories away and be eating under 1500 calories, this might not be a good idea. Likewise you could have a small/lean person who is highly active, this might lead them to only take say 250 calories away and they could be eating over 2500 calories and maybe could deal with a larger drop.
In short using a given number of calories to take away from your intake isn’t highly individualised.
How to fix your calorie deficit
The best way to truly individualise your deficit is the following:
1.] You identify how fast you can lose weight & maintain muscle
2.] You identify how large a deficit you can realistically sustain
3.] You use 1 & 2 to give you an appropriate Calorie deficit
So starting with the speed of weight loss; this speed doesn’t take into account everything identified in number 2, all it looks at is the physiology of the person and principally the body fat they’re holding onto. As said already the more fat you have to lose the faster you can theoretically lose it, and this speed should be represented as a % of total bodyweight.
This is a very important point, because if we just say “oh you’re obese you should lose 2lbs a week” this isn’t individualised, as you can be a small obese person at 150lbs or you could be a very large obese person at 250lbs. For the 250lb person the 2lbs is nothing, but to the 150lb person that’s a fair bit.
So we need to select an appropriate % of bodyweight to lose per week which is predicated on the person’s body fat %.
- Very lean (<8%*) ==> <0.5% bodyweight lost per week
- Lean (8 to 15%*) ==> 0.5% bodyweight lost per week
- Little fluffy (15 to 20%*) ==> 1% bodyweight lost per week
- Fulked (fat bulk i.e. >20%*) ==> 1.5% bodyweight lost per week
*Women – add ~10% to these numbers
That means a male at 170lbs who is 16% body fat would look to lose around 1.7lbs per week on average. It’s important to also know how to track this weight loss appropriately too, you want to weigh in frequently through the week (minimum of 4 times) and take a weekly average and compare this to the week prior, you can ignore week one. –> LEARN HOW TO DO THIS HERE
Now you have this % to work from you can create your calorie deficit:
This is only a starting point, because it is based on something that is not an exact science and so like anything it will be a starting point from which to assess and adjust from. As you might know a 3500kcal deficit a week is the theoretical amount required to burn 1lb of fat, this is therefore a daily deficit of 500kcal. So this is why we multiply the number of pounds we can potentially lose by 500, to give us our daily calorie deficit.
Setting your Calorie Deficit
Now we have identified the theoretical best rate of weight loss, we must individualise it further.
This is where point 2 comes in from above “You identify how large a deficit you can realistically sustain” this means taking into account not just physiological factors but also psychological and environmental.
The size of your deficit will impact the rate at which you lose weight, the larger providing the bigger drop on the scale. Surely then the bigger the better? No, no, we know this is a bad way to start things, because if you start off all guns blazing you’ll have nowhere to go when you stall out (and trust me, you will). This is because the bigger hit you take in regards to your calorie deficit, the harder your body will respond, not too dissimilar to flicking vs. hitting someone, flick em and they get annoyed, punch them and you get knocked out.
So we know we can’t push our deficit too deep.
What we also need to consider is the person’s physiology, psychology and environment.
For example, someone obese is going to be able to handle a larger deficit better than someone who is already quite lean. However, someone who suffers from past yoyo dieting or potentially some binge eating habits will not be able to sustain a harsh deficit even if they’re holding onto a lot of fat. In fact I had this exact scenario with someone who signed up to The Mini Cut Movement, they had a background of YoYo dieting and so I eased them into the diet. They actually said this was more Calories than they usually would eat…what happened? They dropped weight and didn’t feel deprived. A deeper deficit isn’t always better.
Finally if you’ve got a stressful environment, maybe you have a full on job and need to be really on the ball for your career, then you won’t want to take your deficit too deep.
As you can see, a lot goes into selecting the size of your calorie deficit.
Finding your Calorie deficit sweet spot
Finally you’re here, you understand how to set up your calorie deficit.
You realise why taking random amounts off whether a % or a given number is not a good idea and how you must look at your own situation. What I would also like to say is that once you have come to your given deficit you will have to look at how you respond. You can’t expect it to work perfectly first time, you also might find your given situation changes.
However, the key is you have started with the most individualised, the best calorie deficit you can for your given situation.
That means you’re holding onto the most muscle, dropping the most fat that you can.
You have found your calorie deficit sweet spot.
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